Picking up twenty-five years after Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 film, new Stan television series Romper Stomper, shot by Bonnie Elliott ACS follows a new generation of Australian far right activists.
I was at a dinner party earlier this year and heard that Romper Stomper (1992) was to be adapted for television, as part of a lively conversation on the relative merits of so much classic Australian cinema being remade. Some months later producer John Edwards approached me, and I must admit I was a little surprised! I had previously shot Second Unit for other shows he produced; Puberty Blues (2012-2014) and Offspring (2010-).
We had only met briefly. When he told me the original director of the film, Geoffrey Wright, was involved as set up director and story producer I became very interested, especially because the show is not a remake, but a continuation of the story into the present moment. Twenty-five years later the skinheads have evolved into ‘Alt-Right Patriots’, the show sets out to explore their clashes with left-wing Anti-Fascists, and takes a look at media manipulation via Right Wing shock jocks with Muslim characters caught up in the crossfire. So a real broadening of the canvas.
I met with Wright, who has a very provocative and compelling take on the world. I felt it was something I wanted to be part of. We are living in strange times, and I thought it was exciting to see Australian television tackle such themes of the moment.
Romper Stomper is a film that stays with you. I had seen it a long time ago, and my lasting memory of the film was of this strange love triangle in the disturbing Skinhead world. The emotional resonance of that had lasted for me, and of course I remembered the intensity of the filmmaking, the strong blue colour wash and the energy of the camera.
When I revisited the film before committing to the project I was struck again by its visual boldness and the visceral use of the camera. The violence is palpable, which is a large part of its notoriety, and its impact. I really admired the work of the film’s cinematographer Ron Hagen ACS, and that he hadn’t been afraid to push the imagery out of naturalism. The influence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was really evident to me, and after working with Wright, he is clearly a crucial figure in this cinematic evolution along with Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.
The show was commissioned by Stan, who are modelling their delivery requirements on the Netflix 4K HDR model. They haven’t got a list of approved cameras like Netflix yet, so I did push to shoot on ARRI Amiras in their 4K UHD mode which involves an internal up res from the native 3.2K sensor, however they remained firm on wanting native 4K origination. I do find the obsession with resolution frustrating as it really isn’t the whole picture of image quality, as most cinematographers well know.
I looked into the new Panasonic VariCam, as I was intrigued by the possibility of the 5000 ASA option it has, given our show had a lot of night work. But there were availability issues; we needed to be able to service a two-camera shoot, have another body dedicated to Steadicam, and then two days of Second Unit per shooting block.
I chose to shoot on RED Dragons. I have used RED cameras quite regularly in my career, and felt the new sensor had evolved to a very good place, with low light markedly improved and better skin tone rendition. RED cameras can be a little more temperamental, and one of my focus pullers was quite traumatised from a recent shoot in high summer where they had a lot of overheating issues, but with our Melbourne winter production I figured we would be okay. We were, the cameras were absolutely well behaved throughout the nine week shoot.
The High Dynamic Range (HDR) delivery was one of the biggest technical aspects to deal with, as this was to be the first show in the country to do a true Rec 2020 HDR grade, rather than a conversion. I watched some other shows that had been mastered in HDR like David Michod’s War Machine (2017) and new Netflix series GLOW (2017-), and observed the way highlight information was much expanded, but also popped off the screen in an almost brutal way at times.
I then shot my own tests and this informed the way I exposed Romper Stomper, trying to retain highlight information as much as possible, and shooting with Glimmer Glass filters to give subtle halation on highlights to soften the practicals in shot, which is something I always embrace in my work. Large areas of burnt out windows or sky in a frame are something you have to think carefully about in the HDR context. As I was going for a darker, moodier feel, this didn’t suit the show anyway, but it’s an interesting new photographic conundrum that HDR delivery poses for us cinematographers.
I had been fortunate to work with legendary Production Designer Jo Ford on Seven Types of Ambiguity (2017-), and was thrilled Ford was part of the team on Romper Stomper. Ford is a force to be reckoned with, an amazing energy and vision, and depth of experience. I had been struck when re-watching the original film how the costume designer Anna Borghesi had used dramatic pops of colour in her costumes, most memorably the red jacket that Hando (Russel Crowe) steals for Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), so we were fortunate to have her involved in the show, bringing her powerful and distinctive aesthetic.
During our first meeting all together with Wright, he spoke of his desire for this next chapter of Romper Stomper to have its own visual language, and to not feel slavishly devoted to the original. He wanted it to “look like a medieval fever dream in a winter city.” What a great creative provocation! l spent some time thinking on this.
For me, a fever dream is a heightened state, where your senses are amplified, your skin and eyes feel more sensitive, and the world has a heart racing intensity. I felt moments of colour saturation and dramatic contrast would speak to that, as well as energetic and kinetic camera movement. The show was to be alive, like a heartbeat, hand held and Steadicam, a constant pulse, with adrenaline-fuelled spikes.
The medieval aspect spoke to some of the shows deeper themes, of the ancient conflicts between tribes. This I interpreted visually as a strong use of darkness, oppressive moody skies, and almost metallic skin tones, like you used to get in bleach bypass processing. The rich blackness of Film Noir also inspired us, as well as classic films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Blade Runner (1982). We liked the idea of creating a futuristic version of Melbourne, a moment in time almost upon us, a new darker age.
I find reference boards a deeply informative part of my process. When I start a new project I collect a lot of images, from photography, art, and films.
I then synthesise them into collages, to help express where I am heading, but also to find my way there. I did an initial mood board, when Wright and Ford responded positively to that, went further with a whole set that looked at specific character worlds within the show. I wanted to have thematic colours for different characters, an idea that goes through the costume design too.
The Patriots wear a lot of blue, the Antifascists are black and red, and the lighting and colour ideas of the photography had to work in with amplifying that. During that process I came to realise that the character worlds were always mixing, and that the show was really about the clashing of these energies. I wanted the colour and the light in the show to express that, so decided to use mixed colour temperatures whenever I could, the vibration of different lighting frequencies matching the conflict of our tribes. I have always loved the way cinematographers like Robby Müller NSC (Dancer in the Dark) and Chris Doyle (In the Mood for Love) embrace that in their work so wholeheartedly.
I was fortunate to assemble a very experienced and enthusiastic camera team for the show, most of whom I had worked with before at some stage. Steadicam and B-Camera Operator Peter Barta and I had previously collaborated very happily on Spear (2015), and during the Romper Stomper shoot I often sent Barta off to collect atmospheric shots while we blocked and talked through larger sequences. He managed to get so much gold for the show, he has a great eye and is a wonderfully positive person to have by your side.
A-Camera First Assistant Camera, Chris Child, had assisted me on Second Unit on The Slap (2011). Child is a remarkable Focus Puller and I have tried over the years to work with him again, and was delighted that the timing finally worked out for this one. When you shoot hand held you need a Focus Puller who is really in sync with your dramatic sensibilities, and Child was always at the right place at the right time.
B-Camera First Assistant Camera, Cameron Dunn, and I had worked on Seven Types of Ambiguity last year and he brought his trademark wit and general excellence to the job. Second Assistants Camera Karin Christensen and Lisa Cushing are both brilliant technicians and wonderfully supportive people, and hard working Video Split Felicia Smith rounded out the camera department and tipped us over into a majority female team! I have been more conscious recently to always aim for gender parity in my camera departments. The numbers will never change unless we are proactive about it and it’s certainly one area where I can do something about this myself.
I am always deeply involved in the grading process, and on Romper Stomper it was critical to be involved to achieve the heightened look we were aiming for. Grading in 4K at Blue Post we had to deliver both SDR and HDR versions of the show. After testing in pre-production we decided to tackle the SDR version first, and Colourist Annelie Chapple and I started grading Episode 1 the week after we finished shooting. Last year we graded Seven Types of Ambiguity together, and I found her a wonderful collaborator.
Romper Stomper was in some ways a tougher assignment: huge fight sequences with massive amounts of cuts shot over many days, in crazy Melbourne weather of sun, wind, rain, hail. Chapple has done a great job to massage all that, and has been very committed to helping achieve my vision for the show, pushing the images to maximise contrast and drama.
One of the most challenging and satisfying sequences to shoot was the battle on the beach at the beginning of Episode 4. A standoff of the Patriots and the Antifascists on a small pier at St Kilda beach develops into an operatic brawl. Working with legendary Stunt Coordinator Chris Anderson (the original Mad Max amongst a lot of other films!) was such a pleasure. His team are so generous and kind in the way they work together, so filming violent action is never as traumatic as it might seem, as soon as cut gets called everyone is checking to make sure no one is hurt, and just their general sense of camaraderie was beautiful to observe.
We had very tough filming conditions, Melbourne really gave us a pelting, and at times I felt like a General, after a squall would pass I’d have to say, okay everyone, lets get back out there! But it’s a really memorable sequence, with a lot of detailed psychology to the camera coverage, the Second Block Director James Napier Robertson (The Dark Horse) had a very structured and powerful vision for how the battle was to unfold. There is one slow motion shot of Kane (Toby Wallace), our young Patriot protagonist, moving down the length of the jetty, with the Australian flag fluttering behind him and so much mayhem and fighting around him that is really very chilling, especially with the sound track of ‘God Save Australia’ playing over it.
I think one of the biggest challenges of shooting television is working with multiple directors, and the dramatic changes of perspective this can bring from one block to the next. Coming from feature films this has been the biggest learning curve, as my experience has always been about the auteur vision, and getting inside one director’s head. Making sure the overall visual tone of the show is kept consistent within the desires of individual directors is a delicate balancing act at times. However I think if you stick to certain core visual principals then you can accommodate the predilections of different directors within a show.
On Romper Stomper we had three very dynamic directors all with their own distinct approach. Set up director Wright liked to move very fast, not getting bogged down in too many takes, shooting for a raw intensity – like how The French Connection (1971) was made. Then second block director James Napier Robertson liked longer, evolving shots. We did one MMA fight scene inside the octagon all in one shot. That was a fun dance! Third block director Daina Reid (Secret River) loved intimate macro details, and graphic overhead shots. But we maintained the overall policy of hand held and Steadicam, and kept the lighting style consistent, and of course my eye is always there. You have your own instincts for composition and shot design that run through everything you do. Sometimes you’re not even aware of it, but of course it’s there. My sister tells me she can see it very clearly in my work!
When I first spoke with producers John Edwards and Dan Edwards they said we must be bold! Certainly the subject matter of Romper Stomper is not for the faint hearted. I weighed up carefully getting involved, as I knew at times the material would be intense. But we are living in very strange times, and I think it is important we don’t look away from what is happening here in Australia and all around the world. The rise of the Alt-Right is a disturbing phenomenon, as is the use of physical violence by the Anti Fascist left in retaliation. For me, this next chapter of Romper Stomper is a meditation on extremism, and the complex reasons people become involved with different ideologies.
One of the strangest moments of the shoot was filming the opening fight sequence in Episode 1, a clash of Patriots and Antifascists at a Halal Food Festival, and a week later the Charlottesville riots involving White Supremacists and Antifa happened. Script scenarios discussed as being a slightly futuristic, were playing out right now. No doubt this new incarnation of Romper Stomper will divide people, as the original did. But I hope it makes everyone open their eyes a little wider, rather than burying their heads in the sand!
Bonnie Elliott ACS is a cinematographer who works across the fields of drama, documentary, commercials and video art. Bonnie has received recognition from the Australian Cinematographers Society on numerous occasions for her work.